Fuzzy Line in the Gulf

William Pfaff

October 21, 1990|By William Pfaff

PARIS — Paris--ONE REASON there is considerable disquiet both in the United States and the international community over the Persian Gulf is that no one is entirely sure what Washington's goals are.

Of course goals have been set forth, but too many of them. They go from the relatively modest and attainable one of freeing Kuwait from Iraq's control to the exceedingly ambitious one of remaking the Middle Eastern order, or indeed establishing a new international order.

In between come such avowed ambitions as to kill Saddam Hussein -- and his family and his mistress, according to the unfortunate Gen. Mike Dugan -- to destroy Iraq's capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction, or that and its industrial infrastructure too; or even to install an American proconsul in Baghdad, one of the earlier and dizzier avowals, but indicative of a Washington state of mind.

One would like to think of so rich a menu of war aims as the product of an American campaign of disinformation, designed to destabilize the Iraqi leadership and demoralize Saddam Hussein. One suspects the truth is that the U.S. government still does not really know what its aims are, nor has it yet measured its ambitions against feasibility and costs.

Improvising aims in the midst of war has too often in the past been the American way of war. It is one of several characteristic U.S. errors, all of which we may be about to make again. The first is moralization of the war and demonization of the enemy -- although it certainly is not the United States alone which does this; it is a general phenomenon of war. But Saddam Hussein cannot today be acknowledged an unsavory dictator of an all too familiar kind. He has to be the ''new Hitler.'' This does not clarify thought.

Moralization takes a specifically American form when war-making attached to a large vision for remaking international society. Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt waged their wars to create world parliaments and bestow national self-determination and the ''Four Freedoms.'' Mr. Bush today aims for ''a new world order.''

Another characteristic of American thinking about war is an unwillingness to accept conflicts on their own terms. Each is held to be of much larger significance than immediately apparent, and any failure or compromise is held to threaten disasters in series. This expresses itself in domino theories and the ''no-Munichs'' argument.

Thus, fighting in Korea was justified as blocking Stalinist aggression in Europe. A Johnson administration official was quoted, just 24 years ago this autumn, as insisting that ''what happens in South Vietnam will determine the fate of Asia for the rest of this century. With stakes like that we can't afford to back out.''

The United States invaded Grenada, and invented the contras, to save Harlingen, Texas, from communist invasion. Today we are assured that if Saddam Hussein had not been stopped he would have seized Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel if he could have managed it -- and tomorrow the world. Worse yet, potential Saddam Husseins elsewhere would have been, or may yet be, emboldened to set out on their own campaigns of international conquest.

Both the preceding traits of thought interact with another characteristic of American war-making, which is to postpone political considerations until victory is won. One practical effect is to eliminate the possibility of compromise. How can you negotiate or compromise with evil, or when the future of mankind is at stake?

This unwillingness to think politically while a war is going on is why the United States would not invade the Balkans in World War II, or push on to Berlin while it had the chance. General Eisenhower found Winston Churchill's urgings that the United States do such things a scandalous introduction of ''politics'' into matters properly decided on strict military considerations.

The result of all this is improvision and escalation of objectives while the struggle is going on. Our Korean intervention started out to defeat North Korea's invasion. When that was done it became the destruction of North Korea's army. That done, it became reunification of all Korea. China intervened when the Chinese leaders concluded, not unreasonably, that when Korea was unified the United States might invade China.

Similarly, the Vietnam war started with the United States advising the South Vietnamese government how to fight its war. Because that was ineffective we began fighting the war on its behalf. We then remade South Vietnam's government because the existing government had come to be seen as an obstacle to our way of waging the war. After that we overturned Cambodia's government and invaded that country because that too was thought necessary to a war whose objective had become to prevent the United States from being seen as a ''pitiful, helpless giant.''

Is it possible that we are about to go through all this again? What exactly does the United States want? Is it the same thing the European allies want? Let's find out. Is it what our Egyptian, Syrian, Pakistani and Saudi allies want? Indeed, do Saudis, Syrians and Egyptians really want the same thing? If not, how are we all going to go to war together? Or is the United States going to end up at war alone? That surely is not what Americans want -- whatever else it is that we want.

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